Dubuque Community School Board members on Monday night reached a compromise to require masks in any school building when the COVID-19 positivity rate there reaches 3% or higher.
The 5-2 vote came at the board’s regular monthly meeting. Kate Parks, Jim Prochaska, Anderson Sainci, Tom Barton and Nancy Bradley voted in favor of the motion, while Tami Ryan and Lisa Wittman voted against it.
“I’m glad we came to a reasonable conclusion tonight,” Barton said at the close of the meeting, noting that the board members discussed masking policies and took public input over multiple meetings, giving them time to come to a decision.
Effective Monday, Oct. 18, the district will use its COVID-19 dashboard data to institute a temporary mandate for students, staff, parents and visitors in buildings when the positivity rate among total students and staff in that building is 3% or higher. The mask mandate would be dropped when the building’s positivity rate falls below 3%.
As of Monday, no district building had a positivity rate of more than 1.18%. Districtwide, there were 43 confirmed, active cases among the about 10,300 students and 10 active cases among the about 2,000 staff.
Outdoor activities and indoor activities during which people can maintain distancing would be exempt from the mask requirement. Families also can request exemptions for medical, religious or brain health reasons or at the discretion of Superintendent Stan Rheingans or his designee.
School board members previously discussed whether to enact a masking requirement both at a special board meeting in September and at a Facilities/Support Services Committee meeting earlier this month.
A federal judge last month temporarily ordered the state to stop enforcing a law that banned school districts from requiring masks. On Friday, the order was extended until a lawsuit challenging the law can be decided. Gov. Kim Reynolds has appealed the preliminary injunction.
Prochaska proposed an initial version of the motion, basing the policy on those of the Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa, school districts. Board members discussed the motion and amended it into the form that passed.
Barton insisted that the motion allow exceptions for students with brain health needs, noting that is a major issue he has heard from parents. He said he thinks if a building sees a rise in cases, many parents would be amenable to having their children wear masks.
“Most parents, I think, would go along with that as long as we don’t set the floor too low,” he said. “My gut tells me most parents would be OK as long as they felt the threshold was high enough to say, ‘It’s OK if my kid wears a mask for a few days.’”
Earlier in the meeting, Parks proposed a mandatory mask mandate for prekindergarten through sixth grade until vaccines are available to children younger than 12 or until community spread drops.
“It is the hope of a lot of folks that have been contacting me ... that they want us to do something,” she said. “They find it to be our responsibility to do something to make sure our kids are protected when they’re in school.”
That motion ended up failing on a 3-3 tie, with Barton abstaining. Bradley, Parks and Prochaska voted in favor of the motion, while Ryan, Sainci and Wittman voted against it.
Ryan argued that nationwide, the number of children who have died from COVID-19 is very low, and she said the district cannot manage risks that students face when they are not at school.
“To think that it’s going to have any difference of wearing masks, especially the impact of masks on children of that age because they are touching their face, it’s going to be more of a hassle,” she said
Rheingans said following the meeting that district leaders will work out a process to inform families when a masking requirement is in place.
If a building has a 3% positivity rate or higher when the district finalizes its daily update on COVID-19 cases in the district, officials would notify families and require masks for the next day. The requirement would be dropped when the positivity rate in the building drops below 3%, which Rheingans acknowledged could be as early as the following day, or it could be in place for a stretch of days.
He said at the meeting that district leaders would communicate with families in the next day or so an explanation of what the board’s vote means for school buildings.
More than 50 people attended the meeting, and several spoke both in favor of and against masking requirements.
Shari Flatt spoke in favor of a mandate, saying community members must help protect one another.
“No one wants to wear a mask,” she said. “It’s not an issue, however, that I believe allows compromise. There’s no sitting on the fence with this one. Why? Because it’s life versus death.”
Amy Bahl told board members that it should be up to parents whether their children wear masks.
“It is not the school board’s job to tell myself or my children what to do medically or to force unnecessary medical devices,” she said.